Reflections: Refugee Wales

Samuel Sequeira, Refugee Wales Research Associate.

It was the summer of August 2007. After finishing our holidays in the area in Germany where my wife was born, we (my wife and I) were waiting for a delayed flight from Frankfurt to Heathrow, London. Finally, when the flight arrived, and we were about to board there was chaos as all started rushing towards boarding. An officer was checking our passports and as usual I had no reason to be anxious because my visa and resident documents were in order. 

Despite having all travel documents perfect when the officer took our passports he took inordinately longer to examine them, and to our shock he looked at me as said, “Sir, I want you stand aside” while handing over my wife’s passport to her to proceed towards boarding. But my wife, who is German by nationality, would have none of this and she took up a fight with the officer asking for an explanation. The officer was livid with rage and could not believe the anger displayed by my wife. Also, the crowd was growing impatient. Obviously, having no legitimate reason other than my skin colour and Indian nationality, the officer had to relent. But his minute-long stare at me was something that has remained with me even today. Whenever I read or watch the long caravans of migrants struggling to crossover myriad real and imaginary borders to reach a place of safety my own experience at Frankfurt airport comes to haunt me. This and several more such small but unforgettable experiences at border crossings have inspired me embark on a research area that relates to migrants and refugees.

When I embarked on my doctoral research at Cardiff University some years ago I focussed on the group of South Asians who had migrated to the UK (Wales in particular) since Indian partition in 1947 as labourers, professionals, students, refugees as well as those who were ousted from African countries in the 1970s. During my doctoral years I recorded stories of their home that they had left behind, their migration process, settlement, and life in the UK. Being of Indian origin I, too, have shared their migration experience and viewed this area of research most suited to my interests and personal experience. Having completed my PhD in 2016 and while looking for an opportunity to continue my research career I found this current research project: Refugee Wales having received funding support and I saw this as a great opportunity to research on Sri Lankan Tamil community in Wales.

Prior to arriving in the UK, I had worked in India as a journalist. Being from South India I was keeping a close tag on what had been going on Sri Lanka during the time by way of civil war. I have witnessed the plight of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India from close quarters and empathised with their plight. It was very sad that the issue that arose due to real or perceived discrimination led the Sri Lankan Tamils go to the extreme situation of taking up arms and demand a separate homeland. Failure of the state to resolve this ethnic issue and the intransigence of the radical groups among Tamils led to the final war that ended in the defeat and encampment of thousands of Tamils in 2009. I personally had felt a tinge of sadness when the Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran was killed and the Sri Lankan state was celebrating the triumph. My sadness was not for the demise of Prabhakaran but for the defeat and humiliation suffered by a proud and valiant people who fought for their rights and equality within Sri Lankan nation.

The media images of mass- graves, destroyed villages and people in camps huddled behind barbed wires soaked in monsoon rain and ragged condition still haunt me. As a journalist I was always imagining what stories those people behind barbed wires may have had to tell. Now, with this project, I have an opportunity to listen to at least some of those who suffered those years of conflict, state oppression and war and yet managed to escape to the safety of Britain. Their stories of how they managed to escape, what trauma they suffered while crossing those borders and, finally, ending up being settled in the UK will inspire others who go through a similar experience. These stories will no doubt help the state and the wider community to view the issue of migrants and refugees beyond the pale of legality and deal with it as a human condition requiring compassion and assistance. As for the Sri Lankan Tamils in Wales it is their opportunity to imprint their story on the canvas of the larger story of Wales as a multicultural nation. That is why I am delighted to be part of this interesting research project.

https://refugee.wales

Pan ddechreuodd Sain Ffagan gynllunio’r project hwn gyda staff y Brifysgol, doedd dim sôn am Covid-19. A dyma ni nawr ynghanol ‘Y Meudwyo Mawr’, yn gofidio am ein hiechyd, ein bywoliaeth a’n dyfodol. Mor rhwydd y gall bywyd droi wyneb i waered! Ac fe ŵyr ffoaduriaid hynny’n well na neb. Digon hawdd meddwl nad yw’r hyn sy’n digwydd mewn gwlad bell yn ddim i wneud â ni yng Nghymru. Gwers Covid-19 yw ein bod ni, yn ein milltir sgwâr, yn rhan annatod o fyd sy’n fwy. 

Credaf yn gryf iawn mai hanfod amgueddfa fel Sain Ffagan yw’r egwyddor fod hanes pawb yn bwysig. Mae pob un ohonom yn cyfrif, beth bynnag fo’n cefndir. Mae hawl gan bawb i lais, i fywyd rhydd a diogel, a chael parch gan eraill. Nid dweud stori’r bobl fawr yw pwrpas yr amgueddfa, ond cofnodi a deall cyfraniad pawb i’n hanes. Mae Cymru yn ystyried ei hun yn wlad groesawgar, barod ei chymwynas. Mae’r hunan-ddelwedd honno’n rhan o’n hunaniaeth fel cenedl. Ond pa mor wir yw hynny? Beth gallwn ni ddysgu am ein hunain a’n lle yn y byd trwy wrando ar dystiolaeth y ffoaduriaid sydd wedi ceisio am loches yn ein plith? Ac i ba raddau ydyn ni’n deall, mewn gwirionedd, cymhellion ac ofnau’r ffoaduriaid hynny? Sut mae esmwytho eu ffordd tuag at deimlo eu bod yn perthyn?

Mae’r bartneriaeth rhwng y Brifysgol a’r Amgueddfa yn ein galluogi i gyflawni sawl peth. Gwaith y Brifysgol yw gwneud yr ymchwil dadansoddol manwl fydd yn dylanwadu, gobeithio, ar benderfyniadau a pholisiau gwleidyddol. Cyfrifoldeb yr Amgueddfa yw diogelu tystiolaeth lafar y ffoaduriaid ar gyfer yr oesoedd a ddêl, ond hefyd creu cyfleoedd iddynt gyflwyno eu profiadau a’u gobeithion i eraill. ‘Lloches ein hanes ni’ yw Sain Ffagan, ond mae rhoi lloches hefyd yn rhan o’n hanes ni ac yn haeddu sylw.

Gwyliwch allan felly am ddigwyddiadau yn Sain Ffagan sy’n ymwneud â phrosiect Ffoaduriaid Cymru. Yn y byd ansicr sydd ohoni, anodd yw rhagweld pa fath o ddigwyddiadau fyddan nhw. Rhaid i ni gyd bellach fod yn barod i ddelio gydag ansicrwydd. Mae ffoaduriaid wedi bod trwy brofiadau na fydd y rhan fwyaf ohonom yn wynebu byth. Mae gennym lawer i’w ddysgu ganddynt.

If you ask the right questions and listen carefully, there is no one who does not have an interesting story to tell. I grew up on stories of my mother’s younger years and the home front in World War Two. Family friends would come every weekend to Saturday tea or Sunday lunch and conversation would often revolve around memories of nursing during the war, bringing alive everyday life in ways history books seldom do. 

Workshop at Butetown History & Arts Centre
Decades later when I was involved in an oral history project on Cardiff Docklands in World War Two, I heard very different stories of life during the war from people who grew up and lived in Tiger Bay. These stories remain important in retelling the history of Wales and the UK in a more inclusive way. They illuminate the positive contributions made by minorities, despite day-to-day and institutional racism. Similar issues came to the fore again in the UK last year with the Windrush scandal and they are currently being raised by Covid19.

Life stories are an engaging and accessible way of getting to know more about the many people in Wales today who have settled here after escaping war and violence in their home countries. Telling one’s story can be both difficult and life affirming. Listening to refugee stories cuts through the empathy fatigue and indifference produced by 24-hour news. Individual stories tell us how it feels to become a refugee, to lose one’s home and the life one has known, to have to deal with a traumatic past and an uncertain future. They throw light on the many obstacles to creating a new life in an unfamiliar environment. They also reveal the positive contributions that refugees make to Wales today and how we can help smooth the process of settling in, both via social policy and in everyday life. Our partnership with the National Museum means that these stories will become a permanent part of the history of contemporary Wales. 

Knowing more about the lives of others is enriching and important in shaping the sort of society in which we wish to live. My hopes for this project are that it will attract community support and help improve current and future refugee experience. It aims to give participants a sense of agency and ownership and to prove a positive experience for all involved. 

https://refugee.wales